Lessons in creativity from owning an airstrip

Christine Pizzo, Head of Design and Creative, Designit, on what she learned owning a small airport in New Hampshire
Christine Pizzo

Business leaders globally see creativity as the highest-order virtue, especially in the age of AI. No problem too big, no chasm too deep, no valley too wide for your business’ version of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell to creatively conquer. Or at least that’s the perception. It’s not the problem that’s insurmountable; it’s that there’s a lack of creativity to mount that summit. You’ve got AI at your fingertips to crunch the numbers and spit out a not-so-blank canvas that you can work from. But what do you do on the days when you’re just not feeling that creative fire?

It can be daunting, and it’s something I’ve dealt with as a professional creative. Always, the solution boils down to finding a source of inspiration; just a tiny spark will do so that you can get that fire roaring again. I’m lucky when it comes to finding inspiration; our family side hustle is a small airport in New Hampshire. This might not seem an obvious place to go hunting for creative ideas; it’s no museum, gallery, park, or even a coffee shop. There’s certainly no quiet contemplation. It is, though, different every day, and from this, I’ve developed my three key lessons in creativity - from owning our own airport.

Inspiration doesn’t need to be analogous to be important

It’s almost a parody at this point, calling something the X of Y - the Uber of dogsitting, the DoorDash of funeral services, the IMAX of pharmacies, the list goes on. These are all examples analogous inspiration, taking an aspect from one environment and transposing it into another. This scales up and down; it can be anything from a small element to an entire structure. It’s become a more common practice over recent years in the creative field, so much so that it’s almost a crutch that can be detrimental.

We recently worked with Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on a major project to foster a greater sense of community among the airport’s staff and, in turn, make their experience of working at LAX that much better. Having direct experience in the aviation industry was a game-changer here. I was able to speak their language and translate the creative output into a digestible format for all stakeholders. Rather than attempting to explain how a practice from a seemingly disparate industry could benefit them, understanding their world and anchoring concepts to that frame of reference helped us to work that much more collaboratively. 

Ultimately drawing on direct experience can sometimes yield richer ideas and solutions that aren’t iterative but that are instinctually appropriate, and so can bring everyone on the creative journey.

Assumptions are the enemy of attention-grabbing work

Whenever the airport comes up in conversation, two questions almost always follow: “Wait, really?” and “Isn’t that noisy?” These are understandable responses, but they do belie an assumption hidden behind the initial excitement. 

People assume that the airport’s only uses are for hobbyists or apprentice pilots to get miles in the air. However, we’ve had drone tests, autonomous vehicle tests, and, of course, airplanes of all shapes and sizes at our airport. 

Assuming you know it all leaves you blind to exploiting a potential golden niche. Creative processes commonly have some form of empathy step to evaluate the problem from all angles without judgement, to just observe and understand. This should be extended to looking for inspiration; leaving no stone unturned is time-consuming, but it’s under those stones you find golden ideas, and they’re often beneath the surface.

Put people ahead of the product

Creativity and commercialization go hand in hand; we have to pay the bills too, after all. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of client demands, drinking their Kool-Aid, and falling in love with their product. 

Yet the world has changed, and advertising, marketing, public relations, or any corporate vessel of creative content is not what it used to be. We stopped talking solely in terms of product benefits – those 1950s ads where vacuum cleaner wars were determined by just how strong the suction on each model - was long ago. Going down that route today, well, it sucks, really.

People buy from people, and ultimately in this context, you’re selling. It’s more human to convey an understanding of the target audience’s life and ambitions and then show how a product fits into that. When it comes working life, it’s this pragmatic human relevance that balances out the search for inspiration to create compelling creative. 

These creative maxims aren’t set in stone; they’re just what I’ve learned from my own source of inspiration. You’ll find your own airstrip, even if it’s not necessarily fit for airplanes.

Written by
Christine Pizzo